Since 1980, Michigan’s biggest growth industry has been its prison system.
It is a dubious distinction, as the state devotes a bigger share of its general fund budget to prisons than any other state. With annual spending of about $2 billion, Michigan pumps more money into corrections than higher education. And the state keeps its prisoners behind bars longer than the national average.
Conservatives and liberals alike are now saying it is a price Michigan can no longer afford. While opposition to change remains, critics are renewing a push for reforms that include reducing sentencing guidelines for many non-violent crimes, changes in parole procedures and release of some sick and elderly prisoners that cost upwards of $200,000 a year just for mental health and medical care.
“We better start looking for solutions now,” said state Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “This budget is going to grow not only at the expense of higher education but multiple other programs.”
Haveman, representing one of the state’s most conservative regions, has advocated for prison reform for years, and is among a growing chorus on the right championing an issue that was long the province of progressives. But while Democrats emphasize concerns such as the disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color, the right, including figures like former GOP U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, lean on the financial cost of sprawling prisons in an era of tight state budgets.
To Haveman, the issue of crime and punishment boils down to a basic question: What are we getting for our money? The answer: much less than in years past.
In 1980, corrections spending consumed just 3 percent of the state budget. That soared to more than 21 percent by 2013. Prison population stood near 15,000 in 1980. It was more than triple that 25 years later. On average, prisoners today cost the state $35,000 a year. And they are growing more expensive as they age.
“We've locked up people for a long time,” Haveman said. “I don't believe we've created safer communities. I tell people that if I believed locking people up for long periods of time will make us safer, I will write the blank check.”
To his point, a 2013 study by the Pew Center for the States, a Washington D.C.-based independent research organization, found Michigan's rate of incarceration dropped 12 percent between 2007 and 2012. During the same period, crime fell 17 percent.
Old prisoners, big bills
As a start, Haveman is preparing legislation to grant release of some geriatric or sick prisoners, taking cues from a program launched in Connecticut in 2013 to move terminally ill or incapacitated prisoners to a 90-bed, state-run nursing home. The program allows the state to shift costs from its corrections budget to Medicaid.
“That could save us a lot of money,” Haveman said.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, the 10 most costly prisoners in the state averaged more than $220,000 in health care or mental health care expenses in 2013, or a total of $2.2 million. A 65-year-old male, serving a term at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson for two counts of second-degree criminal sexual assault, topped the list at $316,420.
Haveman also is awaiting word from the Michigan Law Review Commission – which has been analyzing sentencing and parole data for nine months - for recommendations on safely lowering prison spending. Its report is expected later this year.
The commission's data is being compiled by the the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit research organization. Carl Reynolds, senior policy adviser for the center, said preliminary data includes findings of “wildly different” sentences for the same crime and inconsistent probation practices.
Reynolds said it also has found “very little difference” in re-arrest rates for inmates released at or near their minimum sentence and those held longer.
Not so fast
But not all Republicans are ready to jump aboard the reform movement.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been a vocal opponent of early release, particularly the potential parole of more than 350 Michigan teenagers serving mandatory life sentences. The prospect of their release arose in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court barred such sentences for juveniles. Schuette argues that the ruling should apply only to new juvenile murder convictions, not those committed prior to the ruling. The issue is to be decided by the Michigan Supreme Court.
To revisit prior cases, Schuette wrote in an op-ed he co-authored in the Detroit Free Press, “would be penalizing and punishing the family (of crime victims). And they have suffered enough.”
Instead of early release, Schuette argues the state should looks to cut costs by reducing wages of corrections employees and the cost of services. According to a 2011 study by the Lansing-based Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit research organization, Michigan's corrections wages ranked sixth highest in the nation, at $58,089 a year. He backs the decision in 2013 to privatize food service for prisons and would expand that to areas like laundry and transportation.
State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he is “willing to look at” recommendations for reform, adding that the idea of releasing some sick and elderly prisoners makes sense to him.
But Jones, a former jail administrator and sheriff of Eaton County, is cautious about letting prisoners out at their earliest release date.
“I think some legislators think that inmates go to prison and they suddenly become Christians and they are saved. I can tell you from experience that very few continue down that path when they get out.”
To be sure, Michigan's prison population has come down from its peak of more than 51,000 in 2006, declining to 42,904 in 2011 before rising slightly to more than 43,000 in 2013. MDOC officials attribute the decline from its peak to a drop in the number of incoming prisoners, an increase in parole and fewer prisoners returned to prison for minor parole violations. They also cite 1998 state legislation allowing parole of prisoners given mandatory life sentences for possessing or delivering 650 grams of cocaine or heroin.
Health care woes
But costs remain stubbornly high, hovering near $2 billion the past several years, as the prison population grows grayer and more costly to incarcerate:
- According to the state House Fiscal Agency, the percentage of prisoners in their 50s and 60s more than tripled between 1994 and 2012, and now accounts for 18 percent of all prisoners.
- Between 1998 and 2012, state spending for prisoner health care and mental health services climbed by 80 percent, from $162 million to $291 million, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing-based nonprofit advocacy organization.
Today, Michigan prisons hold 44 prisoners over age 80, some housed at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater. Though the outside perimeter is lined with razor wire, its geriatric unit seems more nursing home than prison. Inmates, many serving life sentences, shuffle around with walkers or in wheelchairs. Some need assistance to bathe or dress. Bingo is a weekly highlight.
In 2013, MDOC Director Daniel Heyns weighed in on the cost of older prisoners in an article in Capital News Service, a branch of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.
“It’s a decision we need to talk about,” Heyns said. “You can keep them locked up, but get ready to write the check.”
Drugs, serial killer help spark prison boom
Michigan's prison population hovered around 15,000 from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Then it exploded, more than tripling in less than 20 years from 14,658 in 1984 to more than 50,000 in 2002.
Multiple factors contributed:
- Felony convictions, corresponding with a rise in reported crime and the national war on drugs, began to rise in the 1980s, according to Citizens Research Council analysis.
- While the rate of violent crime in Michigan fell by 30 percent between 1986 and 2006, the state’s prison population grew by nearly 250 percent over this period.
- Between 1987 and 2003, Michigan closed three-fourths of its 16 state psychiatric hospitals, on the assumption that these patients would be taken care of by community mental agencies. Many wound up in prison. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that more than 20 percent of state prisoners had severe mental illness.
- In 1992, 38-year-old paroled rapist Leslie Allen Williams confessed to the abduction and slaying of four teenage girls in Oakland and Genesee counties. He had been paroled two years earlier. Responding to public outrage, Gov. John Engler ordered sweeping reorganization of the parole board, replacing professional civil servants with political appointees. Parole rates plummeted.
- In 1998, Michigan adopted tough “truth-in-sentencing” guidelines that mandate prisoners serve at least their minimum sentence in a secure facility. The guidelines ended provisions for reduced prison terms in exchange for good behavior.
Analysis by the Citizens Research Council concluded that the combination of truth-in-sentencing and parole board changes led to a 20 percent decrease in parole approval, a doubling of technical rule violators returned to prison and 11 percent rise in recidivism from 1990 to 2002.
The trend of prisoners being held for longer periods in Michigan was corroborated by another study, by the Pew Center on the States, which compared inmates released from prison in 36 states between 1990 and 2009. It found the typical Michigan inmate was locked up 17 months longer than the national average. Those locked up for assault crimes in Michigan served 30 more months than average.
According to Barbara Levine, a researcher for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS), a Lansing-based nonprofit advocacy organization, there are more than 8,000 Michigan prisoners locked up past their eligible release date. There are more than 850 prisoners with life sentences eligible for parole, Levine reported, with a median age of 59 and an average term served of 29 years.
Levine acknowledged that rapist Williams' crimes were an unspeakable tragedy. But she asserts that the parole board and sentencing changes enacted in their wake have proven more costly than effective.
“They were among the most horrible crimes,” Levine said. “But to abhor what he did doesn't logically lead to the policies that followed.”
Other reform proposals
CAPPS supports Haveman's proposal to release certain geriatric and sick prisoners. It also backs reforms that have uncertain support in the Republican-dominated legislature, including:
- Establish “presumptive parole,” which would stipulate that prisoners be released at completion of their minimum sentence unless there is reason to believe their release poses a risk to the public.
- Scrap truth-in-sentencing guidelines and replace them with a system that gives judges more discretion in sentencing and allows for “good time” prison term reductions.
- Revamp the parole board review process for prisoners serving life terms who are eligible for parole, by requiring appeals for parole to be heard every two years, instead of five. It would also require personal interviews with inmates and seek input from MDOC staff on prisoner rehabilitation.
Muskegon resident Tameka Briggs has another perspective.
In 2009, her father, Willie C. Rice, was killed while frying fish in the kitchen when his Muskegon home was robbed. Derrick Lynell Hewlett, then 20, was one of two men convicted in the murder. Hewlett had been paroled a year before the killing after serving 20 months of a 20-month-to-20-year sentence for cocaine delivery.
Both men were given life sentences.
If Hewlett had not been paroled early, Briggs said, “There's a chance my dad would be with me today.”
“If you let them out early, then you are putting them out where they could hurt somebody else.”
Haveman said it will take political courage to proceed with reform, when highly publicized events like the Rice murder occur.
“You can't ever say that nothing bad is going to happen,” Haveman said. “When we've determined that someone has paid their debt to society, we have to be willing to take a risk and let them out.”